Posted on: June 27th, 2012 Eagleton on the “new historicism”

It is a familiar truth that the last thing which historicisms are usually prepared to place under any historical judgement is their own historical conditions. Like many a postmodern form of thought, it implicitly offered as a universal imperative — the imperative, for example, not to universalize — what could fairly easily be seen, from some way off, as the historically peculiar situation of a specific wing of the Western left intelligentsia. Perhaps it is easier in California to feel that history is random, unsystematic, directionless, than in some less privileged places in the world — just as it was easier for Virginia Woolf to feel that life was fragmentary and unstructured than it was for her servants. New historicism hsa produced some critical commentary of rare boldness and brilliance, and challenged many an historical shibboleth; but its rejection of any macro-historical schemes is uncomfortably close to commonplace conservative thought, which has its own political reasons for scorning the idea of historical structures and long-term trends. – Literary Theory (2nd ed.), 198

In this assessment of the “new historicism” (ie, philosophers and cultural critics, mainly American, who are writing in the wake of Foucault) Eagleton points out not only how such particular strands of “leftism” are irresponsibly non-self-critical, but also how the post-political ethos of such movements (unlike that of earlier versions of critical cultural theory) ends up reinforcing the political status quo.

While I deeply respect Eagleton’s old fashioned insistence (faithful, as he ever is, to Marx) on political criticism which must practically serve to bolster the plight of the working poor, at the same time I regard this reinforcement of the status quo as containing large grains of goodness.

Why? Because, in relativizing or undermining the older movements of political criticism (ie, Marxist-influenced thinkers down through the immediate predecessors to Foucault and Derrida) “postmodern” movements such as the “new historicism” have the effect of opening up an “aporetic space” for the church / theology, which were not as apparent before. As important as social justice is for the world and for the West, it pales in comparison to the potential cultural acknowledgment of the validity of theological thought within that ongoing political discussion called the Western tradition.

This does not mean that “late capitalism” is good; it means that social justice is a penultimate concern.

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Posted on: December 12th, 2011 _The Dharma Bums_ & Marxism

Basic to Marxist thought is “relations of production,” referring to the webs of relationships which people must enter into in order to (re)produce their means of life (survival). The Dharma Bums tries (among many other things) to highlight the possibility of living life outside of this web, outside of these relations of production.

For example, most of the bhikkhus in the book consciously try to minimize their need for income, material possessions, etc., in an effort to avoid dependence upon others for their survival.

Near the end of the book when Ray goes to the mountains of the Pacific Northwest in order to work as a “fire-watchman,” he struggles initially at the need subserviently to submit to the orders of his supervisor at his new job at the “Parks and Wildlife” office. At this point in the story one begins to think that Ray is falling prey to the supposed violence of the relations of production. Not so, however: Ray is not enlisting in this new position out of a slavish need to survive, but rather as an excuse to meditate (as well as an attempted faithfulness to his friend / mentor, Japhy Smith).

At this level, then, one might see the Dharma Bums as providing an alternative to the Marxist insistence on the inevitability of the relations of production. However, upon deeper reflection sees that this is not the case. Most or all of the bhikkhus in the Dharma Bums come from a social / familial background of privilege: all are white and well educated. As Ann Douglas points out in her introduction, all are male. (Indeed, one pervasive criticism against Karouac many of his peers in this cultural milieu is their sexism.) Ray, for one, leans upon his mother & father for various forms of support. Something similar can no doubt be argued for in the case of Japhy.

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